There are lifestyle farmers who are happy. There are commercial farmers who are happy. There are also farmers caught in between who are not happy at all.
For an increasing number of people, the good life is a house in the country with a few acres and some animals. They like having more space than a city lot to call their own.
A large part of the horse industry is built around people with small holdings. They may even have a few cattle, sheep, chickens or some exotic livestock, but making money isn’t their primary motive.
A lot of businesses target acreages and “small farmers.” Acreages need acreage-sized equipment and many other products and services.
While there’s a steady stream of city dwellers moving to the countryside, there are also people who have long had farms, but those farms are no longer of a commercial size. The owners enjoy seeding and combining and it doesn’t matter that their equipment is antiquated. And/or they enjoy taking care of their small herd of cattle or other livestock.
They may have off-farm income or they may be retired. For an economic point of view, they make little or no money from their production after all the expenses are paid, but working on the farm is what they want to do. Like the acreage owners, it’s a lifestyle choice.
In sharp contrast, you find commercial-scale producers with half a million, or a million or several millions of dollars invested. They have a business plan. While not every year is a good one financially, over the long term the farm has made money and it continues to grow and evolve.
Off-farm income may still be important, but the farm is expected to be profitable. The farm is a business and new technology is steadily adopted in an attempt to cut costs and increase returns.
Caught in the middle of lifestyle and commercial are the farm operations that involve too much effort and sacrifice to be considered a lifestyle choice, but are too small to be economically viable most of the time. It’s among this group that you find the most disillusioned people.
They are typically working hard on the farm as well as off the farm. They aren’t having fun and the farm isn’t making any money.
These days, no one in the cow-calf business is doing well. The market should eventually improve, but 50 or 100 commercial cows with a corresponding land base are unlikely to ever provide enough income for a comfortable living.
The same is true for someone with 400 or 600 or even 800 acres of cultivated land. It’s tough to make a living with conventional crops on that land base under Prairie conditions. Ironically, small producers often find it more difficult to make the jump to more profitable crops and cropping systems.
The typical farm of 20 years ago is now a small farm. Using older equipment and technology, it’s a lot of work for meagre returns. Sons and daughters may have an affinity for the farm, but when they understand the economics, they aren’t interested.
Sometimes smaller farms can reinvent themselves, go an entirely different direction and become viable. More often, they are eventually rented out or sold to a larger producer.
Every farm and every farmer is a bit different, but the most frustrated folks tend to be those caught with operations too small to be economically viable in a rapidly changing industry.
Kevin Hursh is a professional agrologist based in Saskatoon. He can be reached at